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Effective December 31, 2012, articles are no longer being updated on this web site.
The site is now maintained as an historical archive, covering articles from the period 1999 to 2012.


REALITY CHECK: BEHIND TRUSTe's SEAL

Source: InternetWorldNews.com

Posted on December 15, 1999 Truste Verify Spam

      The e-mail message we received from "uirstcytop" promised: "Premier Investigator Teaches You - MAKE 10K/ MONTH!" Some of us are always looking for ways to supplement our meager salaries, so we opened up the message.

      "Now, you too can make substantial income using Schweitzers [sic] highly sought-after SECRETS." We decided to pass on the deal, but something else in the message piqued our interest: "As a responsible user of e-mail for mass broadcasting, we filtered our e-mailing list at OptList.com 24 hours before the transmission of this message .... To register your e-mail address for future removal, please visit http://www.OptList.com/register.html."

      Curious, we went to the OptList site. There it was: a Web site asking you to add your address to an Internet-wide "do-not-spam" list.

      Strange, but not unusual; spammers often use such sites to collect addresses from unsuspecting users. Something else on the site surprised us, though: a green seal indicating the site was certified by TRUSTe, the industry organization that monitors Web site privacy policies. TRUSTe's site verified that the seal was genuine.

      After some checking, it appeared OptList wasn't a scam after all, but a genuine - though seriously misguided - attempt at controlling spam. According to OptList president Ken Lau, users would register their addresses at OptList. Spammers could filter their lists through the OptList system, which would excise any OptList-registered addresses. Even if the intentions were honorable, OptList's approach seemed flawed. Why should a user have to ask not to receive spam? It makes more sense for spammers to assume we don't want to receive their drivel.

      Anyway, most spammers simply don't use opt-out sites. Those who do, like our friend "uirstcytop," are probably just trying to lend an air of legitimacy to their operations. We have no reason to believe OptList sold its address lists to spammers or otherwise acted dishonestly. Even so, registering is a bad idea at best - you're just giving your e-mail address to one more person you don't know. And you're getting next to nothing in return.

      So what was TRUSTe doing lending its seal to such a flawed concept? TRUSTe holds itself up as proof that federal regulation isn't needed to protect Internet users' privacy and that "self-regulation" by the industry is sufficient. "Building a Web You Can Believe In," goes TRUSTe's tagline. Doesn't that mean a novice user should be able to infer from the TRUSTe seal that a Web site is looking out for its users' privacy? That it is, in a word, trusty?

      According to spokesman Dave Steer, TRUSTe doesn't try to judge whether dealing with a particular site is good or bad for privacy. TRUSTe certification, Steer says, depends mainly on whether a site adheres to basic TRUSTe guidelines and the site's own policies regarding privacy and security. And if those policies run counter to users' privacy interests?

      "We'll approve a site, but we'll educate them in terms of some hot buttons," Steer says. So if a site doesn't need to know its users' names, TRUSTe might suggest the site stop collecting them. But it won't force the site to do so.

      Maybe we were wrong to expect more of TRUSTe. After all, each time it's faced high-profile privacy violations by member companies like Microsoft or Real Networks, TRUSTe has either claimed it lacked jurisdiction or given the offender a warning and another chance.

      We tried to call Steer on OptList specifically, but he didn't know the site and couldn't get through to take a look. We later found out why. According to OptList president Lau, OptList's hosting provider had cut off access to the site after receiving some complaints. Glad to see someone is looking out for us.




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